Fire service assessment bills will begin arriving in mailboxes of Cape Coral property owners soon, perhaps even later this week, after City Council unanimously approved a resolution to go forward with billing at Monday's meeting.
The council vote reverses a position voted on in February not to bill until an appeal is heard and ruled upon by the Florida Supreme Court. By collecting the estimated $12 million over the next 30 days, which will be placed in an escrow account, the city would have immediate access to the funds when and if the court rules in favor of the city. Should the court rule against the city the money would have to be refunded to property owners at an administrative cost of $140,000.
The city's legal team in the court case told council it is confident the court would rule favorably on the appeal, citing an overall 85 percent success rate on appeal cases.
"I have every reason to feel confident that you are on solid footing," said attorney Chris Roe. "You should be confident that things will play out in your favor."
Staff informed council that the assessment bills were ready to go in the mail in a day or two and that residents would have 30 days to pay up. An average city property assessed at $100,000 would be billed about $110. Vacant lot owners also would be receiving assessment bills according to the lot's value.
"The reason we went with the new methodology was to keep the bills low," explained Councilmember Derrick Donnell. "If we chose an old methodology that was tried and true through the courts, the bills would be 50 percent higher."
The new methodology includes vacant lots, which receive no benefit from the assessment.
"It would be a disservice to property owners to use the backup methodology," said City Manager John Szerlag. "As your manager I believe in doing what is, not what ifs."
Another major factor on council's reversal centers on timing. It was intended to direct bill property owners for the 2013-14 fiscal year and put the assessment on the Lee County property tax bills for 2014-15. Delays caused by the Circuit Court case to certify the legality of the assessment and pending appeal are pushing the two billings closer together. Billing and collecting now for 2014 gives property owners time before the 2015 bills arrive from the county in November.
"We need to get started, but I'm not comfortable with escrowing it," said Councilmember Rick Williams. "I'm real nervous about that. I think we should go ahead and use the money."
Szerlag responded that spending the money before the appeal ruling would put the city in a bind financially in the event that they were compelled to refund it after the judge rules.
In another somewhat controversial discussion, a resolution to eliminate the sponsorship rule for ordinances and resolutions failed to pass by a 4-4 vote. However, council wanted to see the measure rewritten and amended. While council thought removing sponsorship of items would streamline the process, it was uncomfortable with two key points.
The resolution states, "Prior to preparation of an ordinance or resolution the City Council shall, by a majority vote, approve the purpose of the ordinance or resolution and direct its preparation."
The other sticking point revolved around eliminating a paragraph allowing the mayor, a councilmember, city manger or city attorney to sponsor a resolution.
Councilmember Jim Burch suggested that if three members of council agreed on a proposal that it could move forward for preparation instead of "a majority." He also wanted to reserve the right to sponsor a bill.
"I cannot support this resolution as it is written," said Burch. "We need to allow a member to sponsor a bill. This is too restrictive on an elected official. The majority vote has to go. If three or more members like an idea then bring it to the table for discussion."
Three other council members, all newly elected, agreed with Burch. However, the group settled on four members needed to bring an ordinance or resolution to the dais for discussion.
"I have concern for not having a sponsor," said Williams. "We need to have a contact point for citizens who may have questions about something."
It was suggested that at least the district number that would be affected by the ordinance or resolution be attached to the agenda item for citizens interested in contacting council members.
"I have big faith in the eight of us," offered Councilmem-ber Rana Erbrick. "I think we can solve this. Let's see how it works, give it a shot. If it's not working we can come back and change it."
"I'm not comfortable giving one member (a sponsor) more information ahead of time," said Szerlag. "I prefer that all members get the same information at the same time to run the business of the city."
Councilmember John Carioscia brought up a recent case in his district regarding a gas station locating at Skyline Boulevard and Cape Coral Parkway.
"My name was on the bill as a sponsor since it was in my district," Carioscia said. "Naturally, people assumed that I was in favor of the project and I got many calls and emails about it, whether I was in favor of it or not."
When the resolution failed, staff was directed to amend the two points objected to and bring it back for another vote at the March 24 council meeting.
Council also approved a resolution introduced last week to hire 22 regular full-time employees for the Utilities Department to increase the level of service and initiate capital improvement projects. The hires do not impact the city's water and sewer rates and instead should be funded by department savings already demonstrated.